Canada's Indigo Books & Music changes returns policy
Canada’s largest bookstore chain, Indigo, is introducing some dramatic changes to its returns policy for publishers. According to a Quill and Quire report, Indigo plans to evaluate how books are selling after only 45 days and return slow sellers to publishers shortly thereafter. On top of that, they’re cutting shelf space for books to roll out more lifestyle products — no doubt more picture frames and gift cards and that sort of thing. So that means a book has to sell like, well, a bestseller in that first month and a half after release or it’s off to the glue factory. And forget about backlists for all but the most commercially successful writers — there just won’t be any room in the bookstores for that kind of luxury.
Publishers are understandably upset with the impending changes, but I can’t really blame Indigo. The marketplace is changing as ebooks gain in popularity, and Indigo is just trying to survive. There’s no future in remaining dedicated to print books, so Indigo is diversifying into products that earn more money per square foot. It’s just business.
Publishers need to make the same sort of tough changes and transform their business models. It’s time for them to break up with bookstores before they get dumped. Sure, bookstores have traditionally been publishers’ real customers, and most of their marketing and promotions have been directed at the retail outlets. But they need to get out of the distribution mindset and start building relationships with readers, not sales reps and store managers. They need to think in terms of community, not copies shipped and returned. Take the recent initiative of Angry Robot Books in the UK, for instance, which reached out directly to readers and offered them a package discount if they bought the entire season’s list of new books — ebooks, that is. Angry Robot’s offer is similar to Baen’s webscriptions service, another new publishing model that focuses on digital rather than print. (Angry Robot also sells other products, such as iPod cases and T-shirts — lifestyle objects that support the cultural brand rather than replace it.)
These publishers are finding success in forming direct relationships with readers, and all publishers need to follow similar digital initiatives. It’s a shift that’s happening in other industries — I work in the media and most newspapers have adopted a “digital first” position, openly acknowledging the days of print are numbered. Publishers need to do the same. Print books will be around for some time yet, but they’re obviously on their way to becoming a niche product for bookstores. Bookstores should become a niche customer for publishers, and they should focus all their efforts on reaching the customers that will matter in the future: the readers.